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Seeing Pacific Islanders as Indigenous Peoples, not as Asian Americans

Last fall, I was extremely excited when I heard that there was another native Chamoru student attending Mills.

Chamorus are the Indigenous peoples of the Marianas Islands — including the island of Guam, where I’m from. Coming from a small island in the Pacific, it’s always a big deal when I meet another Pacific Islander — let alone another Chamoru. I quickly became close friends with the new student, and we joked that for the first time in the history of Mills College, two Chamoru students were attending the school at the same time.

Guam is a small, tight-knit community where I always felt seen, heard and valued. When I left home for the first time and attended a college on the East Coast before transferring to Mills, I felt like I was from an imaginary country that no one had heard of before, constantly having to explain myself and prove that Guam was a place that actually existed — even though it’s size means that we sometimes don’t even make it on to world maps and our experiences as modern-day U.S. colony are too-often erased from history books.

In my classes, I overhead another student say “isn’t everyone from Guam on welfare?” I had never thought of myself as Asian (let alone “American”…although I am a US citizen due to Guam’s colonization, America seemed almost as fictional and distant to me as Guam did to the people that I met on the East Coast), but when I heard of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) student groups, I thought I had found a place where I would be recognized.

In my sophomore year, I transferred to Mills and attended an Asian Pacific Islander Student Alliance (APISA) meeting. I was the only Pacific Islander in the group, and in the group conversations I was surprised at how often the “Pacific Islander” part of the alliance was dropped and how everyone in the room was referred to as Asian. We were invited to speak about our experiences as Asian Americans, and about navigating cultural differences. Although I appreciated the stories that were shared during the meeting, and the sense of resiliency and bravery that I felt in the room, I didn’t attend more than a few meetings and still felt like I needed to find a community that could speak with my experiences.

I returned home to Guam over the summer and became more actively involved in the decolonization movement; I became more conscious of my identity as an Indigenous person experiencing colonization. My grandfather’s mother is from Sumay, an ancient Chamoru settlement. During the World War II Japanese occupation of Guam, people from Sumay were forced to march to camps across the island. After the war, the U.S. Navy did not allow Sumay residents to return home, and Sumay was transformed into Guam’s U.S. Naval Base. Sumay residents were forced to “relocate” to another village that the military created. We are allowed to return to Sumay once a year on “Back to Sumay Day,” with escorts from the military. Our realities of historical and continuing colonization are similar to experiences of Indigenous peoples around the world.

In the article “Settler Colonialism and Cultural Studies: Ongoing Settlement, Cultural Production, and Resistance,” Aimee Carrillo Rowe and Eve Tuck explain: “The specific formation of colonialism in which people come to a land inhabited by (Indigenous) people and declare that land to be their new home. Settler colonialism is about the pursuit of land, not just labor or resources. Settler colonialism is a persistent societal structure, not just an historical event or origin story for a nation-state. Settler colonialism has meant genocide of Indigenous peoples, the reconfiguring of Indigenous land into settler property. In the United States and other slave estates, it has also meant the theft of people from their homelands (in Africa) to become property of settlers to labor on stolen land.”

Throughout the Pacific Islands, Asians settlers have been complicit with displacing Native Pacific Islanders and aiding in the ongoing colonization of the Islands. Furthermore, when Asians and Pacific Islanders are grouped together in competition for the same resources (such as scholarships and academic support) in the context of the U.S., Pacific Islanders suffer. Kawika Riley writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education : “Asians are more than three times as likely as Pacific Islanders to hold bachelor’s degrees. They are nearly five times more likely to hold advanced degrees. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have formed lasting coalitions and often work together on common issues, but cross-racial collaboration is not grounds for ignoring the needs of either group.”

I believe that there is potential for powerful solidarity movements between Indigenous peoples around the world, when we gather to advocate for the wellbeing of our people and our lands, as well as for futures of freedom. When we recognize a people as Indigenous, our mindset shifts to recognizing their rights to land and political self-determination. In other words, recognizing native Pacific Islanders as Indigenous peoples rather than as Asians is a step towards decolonization.